The India Cable: Death Toll Crosses 2 Lakh; Delhi Dog Crematorium Will Serve Humans

Plus: Shahi baths end by God’s grace but Amarnath looms, Bengal super-spreader poll ending, Bengaluru exodus begins, EC bans victory rallies, and Covid funeral visuals are not ghoulish, but important

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
April 28, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Humans will be cremated at Delhi’s first municipal dog crematorium, which was set up for cremating pets but is not in use. Temporary burning ghats may also be created by the government along the banks of the Yamuna to deal with a rising death toll in the capital. To relieve pressure on health services, a lockdown is considered in about 150 districts with a positivity rate of over 15%. Migrant workers are leaving Bengaluru in droves as lockdown restrictions came into effect. Hundreds of workers were seen waiting for trains in Yeshwantpur and Majestic Railway Stations as Karnataka’s lockdown began last night.   

An earthquake with a magnitude of 6.4 on the Richter scale hit Assam today, with the epicentre 140 km north of Guwahati, and tremors were felt in West Bengal too. Buildings developed cracks but no loss of life was immediately reported. Bhutan is to supply 40 MT of liquid oxygen to India every day, through the Assam border. Covid-19 infections have surged in Nepal, apparently fueled by mutant strains from India.

Stung by the observation of the Madras High Court that Election Commmission officials should be tried for murder for allowing large poll meetings, the EC has banned victory rallies. Too little, too late ― West Bengal is already in crisis because of the meetings held by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, JP Nadda and others, not to speak of Mamata Banerjee and others. Former Chief Election Commissioner TS Krishnamurthy has pitched for holding single-phase elections and substantially curtailing outdoor campaigning time in future polls. 

An Air India flight returned from Sydney to Delhi on Tuesday carrying only cargo as Australian authorities refused to let it take passengers, after one of its crew members tested positive for Covid-19. Australia is the latest country to suspend direct flights from India, to give the authorities in airports of arrival time to develop quarantine facilities. 

India’s Covid-19 tally this morning surged past 18  million with 360,960 fresh cases recorded in the last 24 hours while the death toll crossed the 200,000 mark with 3,293 new fatalities. BBC’s international news services are devoting a special day of coverage to the deepening coronavirus crisis in India and its significance for the global fight against the pandemic. There are reports, interviews and analysis across the BBC’s television, radio and digital services throughout the day. Unpreparedness continues to take a heavy toll, writes the Financial Times.

Sayin “It’s unthinkable… we as an institution would take preference when people are dying on the road?” the Delhi High Court yesterday denied that it had requested allotment of five-star Covid care facilities for its judges and staff at the Ashok Hotel. The Delhi government has now canceled the 5-star judicial ward but the truth lies in between. The court had asked for special treatment – “All that we wanted was, in case they need admission, there may be some facility available” – but didn’t bargain on the allotment of a hotel and the fallout this would generate.

God is merciful. The last of the ‘shahi snans’ at the Hardwar Mahakumbh ended yesterday with an estimated 30,000 taking a holy dip. The threat of coronavirus was pooh-poohed by the state government, so it is surprising that night curfew has been declared in five districts of Uttarakhand for a week. But the Modi government is going ahead with the annual Amarnath pilgrimage, which could lead to a devastating wave of the coronavirus in Kashmir. Bookings are also open for the Chardham yatra in Uttar Pradesh.

Despite the manful opposition of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, a bench headed by the new CJI Ramanna has directed the UP government to shift Siddiqui Kappan to a government hospital in Delhi. After recovery from Covid-19, he may be sent back to jail in UP, and approach the lower court for bail.

Army Chief General MM Naravane visited high-altitude forward areas in eastern Ladakh and Siachen. China has refused to vacate the areas of Gogra, Hot Springs, Depsang and Demchok on the Indian side of the LAC, where it had ingressed last year.

The WHO has said that the B1617 variant of Covid-19 first found in India has been detected in over 1,200 sequences uploaded to the GISAID open-access database “from at least 17 countries”. “Most sequences were uploaded from India, the UK, USA and Singapore,” the WHO said in its weekly epidemiological update on the pandemic.

Registration for vaccination opened to those above 18 years at 4 pm today. The government has announced that appointments will be given depending on how many vaccination centres are prepared.

And while Covid-19 develops into a tsunami, someone is keeping a meticulous public record on editorial material “holding India’s MOST influential, powerful person + party accountable for his/their hubris, arrogance and misdeeds.” That’s putting faces to a crime, rather than documenting an avoidable tragedy.  

Covid ranges free across UP

“People are dropping dead like flies” in Uttar Pradesh, where the virus is no longer restricted to urban centres. In villages, people are dying after developing fever and breathlessness, even before they can be tested. Villagers said “fever and cough” had claimed many lives before they realised it had “something to do with Covid”. The health infrastructure of rural UP, where migrants returned home from city hotspots to vote in the panchayat elections, is already overwhelmed. There are queues at crematoriums. BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has tested positive himself, and in impotent rage, wants the draconian National Security Act invoked against anyone suggesting there’s a shortage of oxygen “in any hospital, government or private” because that “spoils the atmosphere”. He also threatens to seize their property, imagining them to be the spoils of war. Acting on his general directive, the Amethi Police filed a criminal case on Tuesday against a young man who had tweeted an appeal for oxygen for his ailing grandfather.

Meanwhile, Allahabad High Court fumes

The Allahabad High Court has issued a notice to the UP State Election Commission to explain why it failed to check the flouting of pandemic guidelines during the panchayat elections, leading to the death of 135 persons on election duty. The court had learned on Monday of the death of 135 teachers, shiksha mitras and investigators posted on election duty from the Hindi daily Amar Ujala

Another bench said that the BJP state government should give up its “my way or the highway approach” and be open to suggestions. “Whether it is day or night, the ghost of Corona is marching on the roads and streets of the major cities of the state and it can be anybody’s fate. Those who are resourceful will survive and the rest, as histories of past pandemics tell us, may die for want of proper healthcare,” the court commented. It sought a blueprint for public health infrastructure to deal with the pandemic.

“No one should die for want of oxygen,” the court said in another case when an advocate pointed out that many private hospitals are insisting that patients must bring their own oxygen cylinder for admission. The Delhi High Court has directed the Delhi government to file an affidavit detailing the number of deaths in city hospitals on account of the oxygen shortage, to award compensation. The court also threatened to transfer the responsibility of managing oxygen plants from the state to the Centre, after another emergency hearing on the shortage of oxygen.

Gujarat High Court frets

“State’s affidavit is painting a rosy picture and is not in touch with the ground reality. We can't sit in ivory towers. The state has to take steps to break the chain,” said the Gujarat High Court yesterday while hearing the suo motu proceedings initiated by it to take stock of the surge in Covid-19 cases in the state. Gujarat Advocate General Kamal Trivedi acknowledged a shortage of oxygen and remdesivir injections, and a lack of manpower. Gujarat has been ruled by the BJP since 1998, Narendra Modi has been chief minister 2001-2014, and he sold the ‘Gujarat Model’ to gain a sweeping national mandate in 2014.

The Calcutta High Court, Karnataka High Court, Madhya Pradesh High Court and Bombay High Court heard similar cases.

Modi must prioritise vaccinations for worst-hit areas, says Panagariya

The Modi government’s decentralised vaccination strategy comes in for criticism from an unlikely quarter: Arvind Panagariya. The former head of the NITI Aayog says in an op-ed in the Times of India that the government needs to act fast to license the manufacture of existing vaccines so that production can be boosted quickly. And he praises the federal government in the US for negotiating prices with all vaccine manufacturers and allocating vaccine supplies directly to states and  also hospitals and pharmacies that administer vaccines. 

In the absence of proper planning, vaccines are not being given in a way that would make the fight against the pandemic effective  “As on April 21, 2021,” he notes, the “ top 40 districts by the number of active cases accounted for 52% of the cases but received only 21% of all jabs. Arvalli district in Gujarat with 397 active cases administered 2,70,000 vaccine shots while Latur district in Maharashtra with 16,732 active cases administered 2,10,000 shots.”

Bengal elections catalyse Covid outbreak

The longest elections ever in India comes to an end Thursdsy with the eighth phase of polling in West Bengal. Modi and Amit Shah held large public rallies till a few days ago, with Shah asserting that there was no link between election rallies and the surge. But in the course of the election, Covid-19 has exploded in the state. On March 20, a week before the first phase of polling, West Bengal had just 3,380 active Covid-19 cases. By the seventh phase, on April 26, it had 94,949 active cases, a 28-fold increase. In the same period, new cases per day went up from only 383 to 15,992 – over 40 times. WHO has confirmed that “mass gatherings” were a major reason for the huge spike.

The Long Cable

Never mind if death goes viral, the real numbers matter 

Sushant Singh

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aunt Narmadaben Modi, who was being treated for Covid-19, died at a hospital in Ahmedabad yesterday. Our heartfelt condolences to the family, and to the families of more than two lakh others, many of whom have succumbed to lack of oxygen, unavailable health care and lack of emergency medicines after being infected. But as the experts say, the official death count doesn’t tell the full story. 

India’s outbreak is so bad that, according to The Economist, it now accounts for some 38% of global cases—up from just 9% a month ago. The World Health Organisation considers an epidemic to be under control at below 5%. In America it is about 7% now, and 0.2% in the UK. In India as a whole, it is 25%. One model estimates there are five times more cases than are being recorded; another, 30 times more. Real deaths are assessed to be at least two to five times more, and the higher estimate means that 10 lakh have died already. The daily death toll, which is less than 3,000 per day, is projected to continue climbing until mid-May, as per University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations, and could peak at more than 13,000 a day.

India’s hospitals are stretched to breaking point by an explosion in coronavirus cases with people dying outside their doors or at home due to a lack of hospital beds, medicines and oxygen. Crematoriums are working overtime, their chimneys cracking and iron frames melting from constant use. Wood is in short supply in places and some families are using dung cakes to light pyres. Public parks and parking lots have become crematoriums. Corpses wait in 20-hour queues for last rites outside the crematoriums. In New Delhi’s largest crematorium, some workers no longer wear protective gear, and are forced to find alternative spots to burn bodies. If things look bad, it is because they are so. Modi may perhaps like to listen to himself, from when he was not yet prime minister. No amount of official spin or propaganda from the PR-savvy Modi government can convince you otherwise.

An official statement at a webinar yesterday by Modi’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan wins the ‘Comical Ali’ award for 2021: “India is better prepared mentally and physically this year with more experience to beat Covid-19 pandemic as compared to 2020.” His party colleague from Assam, Himanta Biswas Sharma, offers close competition. He claimed that the state “did not have Covid-19 cases till April 6” but official data of his own health department shows that 2,624 people had tested positive since January, and 66 of them had died. In contention is another of their party colleagues, Chandigarh MP Kirron Kher, who announced that she was “donating” ― not allocating ― Rs 1 crore from MPLADS to PGI Chandigarh for immediate purchase of ventilators for Covid-19 patients. It was another matter that MPLADS funds have been suspended for two years, from 2020 to 2022, and the amount has gone to the Consolidated Fund of India.

The question agitating many minds: why are journalists ― mostly foreign and a few Indians ― showing grisly visuals of Covid funerals? Because they believe that that is the reality, and therefore needs to be covered. The foreign media isn’t singling India out in reporting from cremation and burial grounds. It had reported similar images from Brazil, Iran, the US and Europe as well. The most important reason, however, is that official fudging of the extent of devastation and death caused by the Modi government’s mishandling of the pandemic cannot be exposed except by visual shock. Manohar Lal Khattar, the BJP CM of Haryana, wants us to forget the underreporting of deaths because it won’t bring the dead back to life, and the focus should be on providing relief to those suffering now.

A very noble thought, if he were a philosopher or a saint. Alas, he heads a state government in a democratic setup and can’t hide behind evasive sermonising. The most immediate and pressing reason to put out the correct data is for planning and provisioning resources ― oxygen, medicines, ICUs, hospital beds and even crematoriums ― for the pandemic in coming days. It is because of massive undercounting that some districts in Gujarat are suffering from a low allocation of oxygen

The second reason is data integrity, which is of intrinsic value. If you don’t have good data, you can’t make effective policy. No country would want to be seen globally as one whose official data is unreliable. And a government which lies to the people loses its credibility and the public trust. The consequences are harrowing, both for the government and the people, as was the case in Pakistan, which could not hold a census for decades.

Bereaved families need honest closure, with dignity. That is also the least that a human life, cut short by the pandemic, deserves. An honest acknowledgement is the humane thing to offer, an empathetic action for fellow humans who have often not been able to hug or touch their loved ones before they were ready for cremation or burial, in this time of wretched misery. 

And finally, the reason Khattar ― and even Modi ― fears that the real numbers will be  acknowledged officially, in public, is that it brings the principle of democratic accountability into play. Once aware of the truth, citizens, who are the electorate, can hold the government accountable and responsible for its misdeeds and blunders. That’s how democracies function, and if India is to remain a democracy, it is essential for the real numbers to come out, along with the grim images which show the extent of death, devastation and despair under the Modi regime


Tongue is tied

Actor Siddharth, spunky as always, pulled no punches when he asked on social media why fellow celebrities with millions of followers did not demand accountability from the government, reflecting the real concerns of their fans, who are common folk. An academician who studies social media and information offered an answer, and data about when celebrities speak up ― yes, they do. But note the three big spikes showing when sportspersons tweet to politicians ― Modi’s birthday, the ‘janata lockdown’ and election results. Waah, Modiji, waah, as they say on Twitter!

Farmers launch hospital langar

Agitating farmers will distribute food and essential items to Delhi hospitals. Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of several hundred farmers’ unions, said in a press statement that its constituents would work in coordination to help patients in Delhi hospitals. Food packaging has begun at the Singhu border today. The unions, however, reiterated their demand for the repeal of the three farm laws and a legal guarantee of Minimum Support Price, and vowed to continue their fight.

No vaccines to start vaccination with from May 1

Despite the Modi government announcing a new vaccination policy, a Covid-19 jab may not be available for all from May 1, as the country faces a major shortfall. Expanding the drive to include all adults has doubled the number of candidates, but supply has not been expanded. Wait times will increase, and imported supplies may not be available for several weeks. The Serum Institute of India, with a production capacity of 6 crore doses a month, and Bharat Biotech, which can roll out 1 crore doses a month, are far too stretched to meet the huge demand. Maharashtra and other states have announced that the SII is unable to supply them any vaccines before May 20. Efforts are on to raise production capacity quickly.

Prime Number: 100/45
More than 100 journalists have died of Covid-19 in India, and a staggering 45 of them in the last fortnight. Reporters, in particular, are at even more risk than health workers ― they work in completely unregulated contexts. 

Deep Dive

Vaccines are the only ticket out of Covid hell. India’s vaccination programme has faced criticism for being tardy and too tightly controlled. The government faced criticism for the slow pace of vaccination in February 2021, but now there are other serious questions. The Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA) takes a shot at understanding some of the issues.

The shape of recovery is a flat spin

The raging second wave of Covid-19 continues to hurt the economy and livelihoods. The Nomura India Business Resumption Index (NIBRI) suffered its biggest week-on-week fall to reach 75.9 in the week ending April 25. The decline in the NIBRI is in keeping with expected deterioration on other important economic parameters. Pent-up demand may make itself felt in June. Mahesh Vyas, managing director and chief executive of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) said that he expects the employment rate to fall for the third consecutive month in April. No measures to alleviate the pain have been announced by the Centre.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • “In order for the country to launch the mammoth operation of recovery and repair needed for our survival, the departure of Modi, Shah, Bisht et al from positions of power needs to happen immediately — tomorrow is too late, yesterday would have been better,” writes Ruchir Joshi. 

  • The Washington Posteditorial board writes that the damage the new wave of the coronavirus is wreaking on India can’t be ignored — and neither can the Indian government’s attempts to suppress the truth about it. It appears to be using the pretext of public health not to protect its citizens from harm, but to protect itself from embarrassment.

  • How cult worship drove us into crisis: A study of how official exuberance and self-praise early this year lulled every arm of the state into lethargy and inaction, by P Raman.

  • VICE spoke to a crematorium worker at the centre of India’s Covid hell, in New Delhi’s largest crematorium. Some workers no longer wear protective gear and are forced to find alternative spots to burn corpses.

  • Rukmini S speaks to The New Yorker about the coronavirus cases and death toll in India, and why unofficial statistics suggest that the true numbers are likely far greater than reported.

  • Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes that India’s vaccine policy reflects an ad hoc social Darwinism, where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer because they must. We can start by demanding a reconsideration of our vaccine strategy, and then think of larger political change.

  • Yesterday was World Malaria Day. Here is Sarthak Das, CEO, Asia Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance on combating the disease when the focus is on Covid-19.

  • The US is planning post-pandemic life. In India, we’re trying not to die. The news from the rest of the world makes us feel all the more isolated in a crisis, writes Ronita Saluja for The Washington Post.

  • The wailing of sirens and the beeps of distress messages on the phone continues. And taken with the silences, they make up the sound of an entire citizenry abandoned at their greatest hour of need by those who hold the highest office, entrusted to serve and protect them, writes Mahesh Rao in Prospect Magazine.

  • Nonica Dutta says Jallianwala Bagh changed the idiom of the nationalist movement and deserves more recognition than it gets.

Annihilation of Caste to Motherwit: Eight books of the month

Since 2013, April has been celebrated as Dalit History Month. Modelled on Black History Month, it is an annual observance that commemorates and celebrates the neglected histories, lives and works of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi people. The team at Champaca Bookstore, Bengaluru, has put together a list of recommendations that are relevant through the year.

Listen Up

An NPR podcast looks at the state elections: “As Prime Minister Modi’s party tries to win control in upcoming elections in India, his party is using a highly effective social media strategy. But that’s where politics can veer into disinformation.

Watch Out

‘Data’: a four-letter word we must all pay attention to. With massive under-reporting of deaths, what are the implications of huge data gaps in the midst of a raging pandemic, in the near term for Indians trying to understand how badly we are affected, and in the longer term for scientists and researchers trying to model and predict the trajectory of Covid-19 to inform future public health responses? 

Over and Out

Them Uncles keep telling us that it’s anti-national to compare 2020s Delhi with 1930s-40s Berlin, but it’s such fun that the internet just keeps giving:

Correction: In an earlier version, we said 8th phase of the Bengal election was now over. In fact, it will take place on April 29.

That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.